World Ceramics: How was it made?

Image of Seed Jar

Pueblo pottery is often made of clay from sources in the earth discovered by the potter. The clay is considered a sacred gift; potters make offerings of cornmeal and ask permission to take it from Mother Earth. Once the clay has been dug and transported, it must be processed. Water is used to dissolve out minerals; other impurities such as stones, twigs, and roots are sieved and sifted out. The clay is then mixed with sand, finely ground rock, or crushed POTSHERDS which will ensure slow, even drying of the pots without cracking.

Traditionally, women shaped pots, and men helped with mixing the clay or with painting. Today both men and women make pots, using the hand-built COILING METHOD. To begin, a base is patted out much as dough is flattened out to make tortillas. If the pot is larger than the palm of the hand, it is placed on a base called a PUKI, which is used to support the coils as they are added. A puki can be anything that will hold the pot, from a china plate or cereal bowl to a pie tin.

After pinching a rim around the edge of the base, the maker rolls the first coil of moist clay and adds it to the inside edge. Coils are added one by one, as the potter turns the puki, making sure the clay remains moist enough to adhere properly. Air bubbles are constantly kneaded out, as they could ruin the pot when it is fired.

An essential part of shaping the pot is called scraping. Working with speed and care, the potter uses a scraper made from a potsherd, gourd rind, or more contemporary material such as an eyeglass lens, to thin the walls and smooth out the coils. After the pot has dried, its final form is achieved by more scraping and sanding. Sanding was done with corncobs, lava rocks, or sandstone; today potters also use window screen, steel wool, sandpaper, or metal tools.

Next the potter creates a smooth shine by carefully hand rubbing the pot with a polishing stone or clean rag. Quotskuyva uses a polishing stone that was her mother's. Pueblo familes often pass down objects used in making pottery as part of their tradition. Polishing requires great skill and concentration to avoid scratching the pot.

Now the pot is ready for painting, the last step before it is fired. Paints are made from plants and colored rocks, ground up and mixed with liquid. Brushes are made from a dried YUCCA leaf that has been chewed down to a few fibers for bristles. Designs are painted on freehand and sometimes made up as they are added.

The potter builds an outdoor KILN from scratch each time pots are fired. She places the pots on a grate a few inches off the ground and stacks kindling underneath. Then she covers the pots with broken pottery, tin, old bedsprings, or other metal pieces to protect them from the fire. The fuel, usually cakes of sheep or cow manure mixed with pieces of wood and bark, is stacked around the outside and lighted. Firing is a risky part of the process; a few pots are always ruined.

Some potters make an offering before lighting the fire, or have the ground blessed by a holy man. The potter has a sense, from experience, of how long the fire needs to be tended and when she can let it burn down. Overfiring can cause the pots to turn dull. Not all the pots are "meant to be." Some of them explode, or air bubbles in the clay pop. Every potter keeps a few cracked pots in her home, believing that pots, like people, are valuable, even when imperfect.

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Where does it come from?
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How was it used?
How was it made?
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